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At FOWA, social media is the universal language

The conference in Miami has attracted entrepreneurs from all over the world, including some from start-ups you'll probably never hear about in Palo Alto or Cambridge.

MIAMI--The Future of Web Apps conference here hasn't even started yet, but I'm already sensing a major theme of the weekend: social media really is a whole lot bigger than Silicon Valley.

I was sitting in the lobby of my hotel, writing a couple of blog posts because there's no in-room Wi-Fi (gotta make some sacrifices when choosing hotels in a luxury-saturated city like Miami) when a handful of 20- and 30-something guys with laptops came in and set up shop. Another, who'd been sitting across the room, came over and asked us if we were in town for FOWA and the accompanying BarCamp Miami. As it turns out, we all were.

I spent a few minutes talking to one of them, a Honduras-based Web consultant named Alejandro Corpeno who had recently launched a side project called TuBabel. It's a community site that they eventually hope will be a comprehensive, user-driven resource to deciphering the many significant discrepancies between dialects of Spanish spoken throughout the world. From what Corpeno told me, those language differences are significant enough to warrant their own Web site, and said that he eventually hopes TuBabel will be a sort of Latin American UrbanDictionary.

TuBabel is a piece of social media that's very foreign to me, culturally. The site is all in Spanish, of which my knowledge is limited to "la cerveza mas fina," and it deals with a phenomenon that U.S. English speakers don't encounter in their own language (differences in our regional slang are an order of magnitude less noticeable). But I could still get a grasp of its function and purpose because of that social media site structure with which we're all familiar by now: There are tag clouds. There's a staff blog. There are member profiles for networking (the site refers to its users as "Babelistas.") And (of course!) there's a bright, color-gradient-happy design.

I come across social-media sites created outside the U.S. all the time. But it's much less often that I get to talk to the founder of a site that was created internationally, in a language other than English, with a target audience with practically no overlap to the SoMa or SoHo sets--and yet browsing the site still feels intuitive. Imagine: Social media actually might be that great international unifier that all those wacky Web futurists say it is. (Well, let's be real. It's not going to stop global warming on its own.)

I probably shouldn't find this quite as remarkable as I did, and have made a note to myself to get my head out of the sand. While at FOWA, I'll be keeping an eye on cool trends and new players in the international social media and start-up markets that you probably won't read about on the English-language industry blogs.

But Web 2.0 isn't the only common denominator at this conference. One of the hotel's staff members noticed the pack of FOWA attendees in the lobby, all with PowerBooks or MacBooks of one variety or another, and commented, "Is there an Apple convention in town?"

"Yeah, basically," one of the FOWA-bound guys said.